Over the past couple of months, a friend and I have debated the usefulness of labeling one work better than another. "Every bit of ephemera can't be preserved!" I told him during one of these talks. "We need to focus on what's of greatest value to the society." But how dramatically affected will our children be if we decide one Warhol is better than another? Is anything at stake? According to my friend, the answer is an emphatic "no." "Such proclamations do more to shut down dialogue than advance ideas, " he told me.
I'd be lying if I said I had no stake in my own punditry, but I enjoy the subject for other reasons: Greater self-awareness comes from knowing what you like and why, and comparative criticism is a great way of figuring it out.
As it happens, my stance on the value of debating the relative greatness of art works was put to the test early last week when I attempted to evaluate Andy Warhol's self-portrait wallpaper. Executed in 1978, the purple and pink grid was cited in one exhibition as a representation of his worst work, and in another as an example of Warhol's willingness to experiment. Was the latter a more useful statement than the claim about the work's relative value? Whatever the answer is, of course, is itself a judgment about value.
The first time I saw Warhol's wallpaper—last fall at the Tate Modern, under the heading, "The Worst of Warhol"—I wasn't thinking about any of this. I considered the piece almost exclusively within the context of that heading; it didn't hurt that the concept of "worst" was illustrated exceptionally well: A dog-doo brown wall mimicking Warhol's universally panned "Portraits of the 70s" at the Whitney faced the wallpaper with a quartered black self-portrait in sunglasses hung over top. I was flanked with awfulness and loved it. The gallery effectively demonstrated that even though Warhol sold his work for a lot of money, it wasn't always an indication of quality. Warhol may have been a legend, but not all of his work was successful.
I could almost hear my friend as I wrote this week. "How much does this tell us about Warhol that we don't already know?," he'd ask me, knowing I'd concede that it wasn't very much. All artists fail. I expected my friend would leave the Brooklyn Museum's take on the wallpaper (Warhol: The Last Decade) alone, though, as it contextualized the work with some lesser-known pieces, probably as means of demonstrating the artist's willingness to try new ideas. These ideas often resulted in failure—his brushy abstract silkscreens, his series of Pollock-esque drippy paintings—but the show's arrangement illuminated a working method that a simple value judgment could not.
I would've liked to have seen The Last Decade reference a historical figure by comparison (like Pablo Picasso, who took on surrealism and neo-classicism later in life, just as Warhol used abstract expressionism and abstraction). Writing this though, I recognized I'd strayed rather far from my original draft, which had simply reasoned out why the work looked better in Brooklyn than it did at The Tate. It also seemed that my friend had a point even if he'd never explicitly expressed it: The most thoughtful way to engage in art isn't necessarily through quantitative comparison, but by doing the thinking to produce meaningful connections and interpretations inspired by the paintings themselves.